Ninety-year-old retired Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen (陳日君) yesterday appeared in a Hong Kong court charged with failing to properly register a protest defense fund, after he was initially arrested under the territory’s National Security Law.
Zen, one of the highest-ranking Catholic clerics in Asia, was among five prominent democracy advocates — including singer Denise Ho (何韻詩) and veteran human rights barrister Margaret Ng (吳靄儀) — who were detained earlier this month.
The group acted as trustees of a now-defunct fund that helped pay legal and medical costs for those arrested during huge and sometimes violent democracy protests three years ago.
They were arrested for “conspiracy to collude with foreign forces,” but have not yet been charged with that offense.
Instead, all five of the fund’s former trustees and its secretary were charged yesterday with failing to register it as a “society” with police — a non-national security offense that can incur a fine of up to HK$10,000 (US$1,274) for a first conviction.
Each of the defendants, apart from democracy activist Cyd Ho (何秀蘭), who is already serving a jail sentence for unauthorized assembly, were present in court. All entered a plea of not guilty. The trial is to begin on Sept. 19.
The investigation into the “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund” was triggered when one of the group, cultural studies academic Hui Po-keung (許寶強), was intercepted at Hong Kong’s airport on May 10 as he tried to leave to take up an academic post in Europe.
Diplomats from multiple European countries, including Germany, France, Sweden and Italy, attended yesterday’s hearing.
Zen’s arrest in particular has triggered outrage from Western nations, who have accused China of eviscerating the freedoms it once promised Hong Kong.
The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong issued a statement after the hearing, saying it would “closely monitor the development of the incident,” adding that Zen is “always in our prayers.”
Zen said he was not there as a representative of the Diocese.
In a separate case on Tuesday, another high-profile democracy campaigner, Benny Tai (戴耀廷), was jailed for 10 months over a 2016 media campaign around the territory’s legislative elections.
Tai, a legal academic, had earlier plead guilty to breaching Hong Kong laws limiting who can place election advertisements.
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